Dining customs are awkward and confusing to most. Upon arriving at formal dining events, many don’t know the names or purposes of the place settings before them nor are they familiar with customs surrounding propriety. If you weren’t of the good fortune in childhood to attend cotillion or finishing school, formal affairs are foreign territory. We’ve compiled a guide from various sources such as The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette. We’ll walk through a virtual “tour” of a formal dinner as it progresses, from arrival to departure, identifying rules and customs to observe throughout. In addition to the information here there are many guides available to help ordinary folk not only survive, but enjoy, formal dining affairs.
The most important and least flexible rule of conduct is that: Culture drives etiquette. In foreign cultures one must be aware of one’s surroundings and of the rituals of one’s company. Here we discuss predominant culture in the United States, so prepare to adapt these rules as necessary.
Gentlemanly conduct begins before the dinner party while grooming and dressing. Take care to be presentable and appropriately dressed for the occasion. Formal dinners are classified by the type of dress required, and A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up offers advice for gentlemen lost in the details.
While Black Tie is considered the epitome of formality, White Tie is actually a step-above. Because white tie affairs are so rare these days we won’t go in depth. Simply understand that there are very specific rules for white tie dress, and the attire is more like a uniform than a fashion choice, specifying garments, colors, and even materials–White tie events are hardly an opportunity for creative expression. The Gentleman’s Gazette outlines faux pas in their cautionary article.
“Black tie” means that a tuxedo is expected. Variations you may see are “Black tie only” or “Black tie required.” These come across as demanding and are less common than the simple “Black tie,” but the three are synonymous. A reasonably priced, well-made tux can be had for around $100. Attending a black tie affair in inappropriate attire is an affront to the hosts and an embarrassment to oneself. Shoes should be brightly polished and must match the slacks. The rule is simple: attend in true Black Tie attire or regretfully decline.
“Black tie invited” or “Black tie optional” indicate that the dinner is formal in nature but that tuxedos are optional, though often suggested. It is better to wear black tie attire to these events, but it is acceptable to “dress down” a bit. Should one choose to attend a “Black tie invited” party without a tuxedo, one should have a sharp, fresh haircut and wear a fitted, dark-coloured suit with a simple tie.
Other dining events to which you may find yourself invited are as follows:
Semiformal or Business Attire
Wear a dark coloured business suit – preferably with a matching vest, a dress shirt with a tasteful tie, leather shoes with matching socks (black shoes for black or grey suits, brown for blue or brown suits), and a dress belt to match the shoes. I prefer the look of a well polished black leather Oxford over a brogue, but that’s all personal stylistics. There’s no need to spend more than $100 on dress shoes if you dedicate some time to learning how to properly polish them.
A dress shirt and blazer, casual button-down, or a nice polo shirt would all be appropriate here. One may choose to wear slacks or khakis with dress shoes or loafers. Business casual events are perfect for trotting out fun, patterned shirts and ties inappropriate for formal affairs, though ties are optional.
Casual events require nice denim, khakis, or proper shorts and a plain t-shirt or polo without print or logos. Loafers and sneakers are appropriate choices for footwear.
A brief note on hair, beards, and grooming.
There are many popular hair and beard styles, and it is possible to be presentable with long or short hair on the head and face. Beards should be well-groomed: I don’t mean short, I mean well-groomed. Bushy manes should be tamed with beard balm or styling cream (Wild Willie’s is an excellent choice) and a natural horn beard comb. Long hair should be kept neat and pulled back in a bun, and medium or short hair must be neatly groomed. Care should be taken that hats do not “muss” the hair. Cologne should be tasteful and not overpowering. Opt for a sophisticated scent that fits your personality–something grown-up like Habit Rouge by Guerlain, available on Amazon.